Last May, a man climbed out of the swimming pool at El Conquistador Resort in Tucson, where the Lutherans’ Grand Canyon Synod was meeting to choose a new bishop. “Do you want this job?” the dripping man quizzed the Rev. Steve Talmage, a Peoria pastor and bishop finalist.
“Who in their right mind would want this job?” Talmage answered. “But if God wants me to have it, I’ll take it.”
One of 72 names first put forward, he received the needed two-thirds of votes on the fifth ballot, with two East Valley Lutheran pastors finishing second and third.
Today, Talmage, 47, will be installed as the third bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The 90-minute public event will begin at 1 p.m. at La Casa de Cristo Lutheran Church, 6300 E. Bell Road, Phoenix, led by Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, who heads the 4.93 million-member denomination.
Talmage, ordained in 1985, will oversee 115 churches and 75,000 Lutherans in Arizona and Clark County, Nev., including Las Vegas. The bishop’s post abruptly became vacant in January in the fifth year of the six-year term of Bishop Michael Neils, who admitted having an extramarital affair and resigned. Talmage will serve until 2012 and would be eligible for a second sixyear term.
The Tucson native and father of two began his work Aug. 1. With about two weeks in the role, being bishop can seem “surreal,” he said. Heretofore, he had always been a parish pastor.
“I feel like a kindergartner going to school for the first time because everything is new, but it is very exciting and stimulating,” he said.
During his 21 years in ministry, Talmage spent five years as pastor of a Tucson church before answering a call in 1990 to be pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Peoria. During his 16 years there, the congregation has grown to 1,100 members and has moved from a predominantly senior population to one with more families.
“He’s a man of Jesus — he knows who’s in control,” said Curt Hahn, the synod’s vice president and a member of Desert Cross Lutheran Church in Tempe. Talmage is known for his skills at “bridging relationships” and his “collegiality” with other pastors, Hahn said.
A third-generation Arizonan, Talmage said he is a Lutheran because his mother went “church shopping” with a neighbor and picked a Lutheran church, where she faithfully took her four children.
“Over the years, I decided this was the right place to be,” Talmage said. After his father died at age 47, the family moved to Phoenix. Talmage graduated from Sunnyslope High School in 1977.
He credits Young Life, an established Christian youth fellowship, as a major influence in moving him toward his decision to become a pastor. Young Life took “what I had learned in Sunday school” and provided “wonderful male mentors — spiritual mentors that I did not have growing up. . . . They were Christ in the flesh,” he said. Those youth leaders were there as Talmage emerged from mourning his father’s death.
“That kind of wakes you up to what is important in life,” he said.
Talmage said he watched his skills unfold in his senior year of high school as he helped a Bible study of three expand to 15 members.
“That really began to tell me that I could influence other people with faith.” While getting his degree in psychology from the University of Arizona, he volunteered with Young Life. He was further emboldened by a “very active Christian woman,” his high school sweetheart at Rincon High School in Tucson, Barbara, now his wife of 25 years and a teacher in the Peoria Unified School District.
Now in synod work, Talmage intends to emphasize much of what worked at Peace Lutheran, especially his quest to get people in the pews to “move from membership to discipleship,” not just being faithful Lutherans but employing their gifts and skills to work in mission and ministries to help others.
“Two-thirds of our congregations have plateaued or are declining in membership, and so my hope is that I can use the gifts of the synod to reverse that,” he said.
At the end of his bishop work, he said he wants to see two-thirds of churches growing. “There is a real need to bring our congregations together in natural relationship around mission,” he said. “Too many of our congregations have felt cut off or isolated.”
As bishop, he will oversee the synod’s work, be involved in the calling of pastors to churches, assist in conflicts and crises, “be a conduit for global and churchwide concerns of the local congregations” and be a “pastor to pastors.”
“Hopefully I get to use my pastoral heart to influence our congregations to grow disciples,” he said.
“Steve not only has an engaging personality, but he practices his faith in everyday living,” said the Rev. Steve Holm, pastor of Desert Cross Lutheran Church in Tempe and the candidate who finished second in bishop balloting on May 26. “He has a deep devotional life, regularly feeding his spirit with prayer and meditation.” Holm said Talmage is unpretentious, humble and direct. “He will demonstrate his pastor’s heart as he leads our synod in expanding our mission outreach in our changing situation.”
While such issues as human sexuality, immigration policies and a stance on the war in Iraq have seemingly consumed the denomination’s agenda, Talmage said the primary concern of Lutherans is how to be “an active witness of Christ to the world.” He calls on his churches to focus on “God’s love and forgiveness that comes to us through Christ” in baptism and Communion and to continue to discover the “priesthood of all believers,” that all have a mandate to serve others with the love of Christ.
Talmage said he hopes his new job never changes him from what he has always sought to be, an authentic “servant leader.”